Stop-motion animation made its first serious entry into the mainstream film industry through the work of animator Willis O'Brien. The Lost World (1925), in which O'Brien mixed stop-motion dinosaurs with live actors, was a major hit, but it was his work on King Kong (1933) that took stop-motion animation to new heights.
For King Kong, O'Brien perfected many of the techniques he had developed for The Lost World. Smooth motion, realistic expressions, and improved integration with live actors made the stop-motion Kong the film's star, and earned O'Brien his place as the father of modern stop-motion animation. The film Mighty Joe Young (1949), on which O'Brien supervised the stop-motion animation special effects, was awarded an Oscar for best visual effects in 1950.
O'Brien's greatest protege was Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen made a string of major films that advanced the art of stop-motion animation, including The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), and Clash of the Titans (1981).
Another notable Hollywood stop-motion pioneer was George Pal. His stop motion animation work appears in numerous films, the most famous of which, 1953's The War of the Worlds, won an Academy Award for best visual effects.
When Willis O'Brien invited Ray Harryhausen to join him in animating on the 1949 version of Mighty Joe Young, this allowed the young Harryhausen to develop his skill and range as an animator. He would go on to produce visual effects for many films such as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), along with a ton of others. His work on The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1957), Mysterious Island (1961), First Men in the Moon (1964), The Valley of Gwangi (1969), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974), and Clash of the Titans (1981) are considered some of the best stop motion animated work in the world to this day, and in most cases Harryhausen animated the entirety of the visual effects by himself.
By the 1970's, stop motion had hit a fever pitch by being one of the most utilized visual effects techniques, as well as a medium for commercials. By the 1980's stop motion had hit its peak with feature films, animated television series, highly profiled commercials for major brands, and the newest of mediums: the music video.
The 80's were truly a golden age of stop motion world wide. The amount of animation produced during this time can be viewed as mind boggling. Cable television networks like MTV would hire artists to make their station ID's completely out of stop motion, and music videos for artists (like Peter Gabriel) would have their music videos completely produced in stop motion. Soon it looked like clay and puppet animation was everywhere. Will Vinton, who won an Academy Award for Closed Mondays, opened up an animation studio in Portland Oregon that would produce some of the most iconic characters to this day. The Noid and The California Raisins would be two huge clay animated commercial characters that would later become bigger than the brands they were trying to promote. Films such as, Star Wars: the Empire Strikes Back, Dragon Slayer, and Robo Cop would be filled with stop motion visual effects to the point that the lines between reality and the imagined were so well blurred, many people thought it just couldn't get any clearer.
By the early 90's things started to fall apart in the stop motion animation industry. With the growth of desktop computers and the advancement of technology, handmade animation was quickly disappearing as the preferred medium of choice for commercials, visual effects, and movies.
The 90's were considered a strange time since the hand animated films like The Nightmare Before Christmas, Chicken Run, and James and the Giant Peach were hits and fan favorites; but because of PIXAR's success with their first feature film Toy Story, the whole industry from music commercials, television shows, to feature films quickly abandoned the once-loved handmade art forms. No one was immune; 2D cel animation quickly disappeared, bringing about dark times for traditional animators. Many left the industry completely to never return, but for the lucky few that believed in the process, they remained and eventually saw things get better.
Television production seemed to be the only outlet that would keep the flame alive for stop motion longer than 10 years. Television shows like Pingu, Bump in the Night, The Pj's, along with a few others allowed for stop motion to have a place of residency while the world looked away towards the horizons of new technology. One new medium that should be noted that took hold in the 90's (and is very much alive today) is video games. Clay Fighter, which was released in 1993, was one of many video games which used the stop motion animation technique of photography in production.
One thing that many people tend to forget is that the majority of stop-motion animation was not produced in the U.S.A. In fact, puppet animation was very much alive and thriving in Eastern Europe throughout the golden days of stop-motion. One of the most famous animator/directors of the time was Jiri Trnka, who was envisioned in Eastern Europe as the man who invented the ball and socket armature. Though this is not necessarily true, it is however of note that his ball and socket armature building method, style, and technique is all his own and would later influence many puppet builders. Jiri Trnka is often called the "Walt Disney of Eastern Europe" since his studio, Trnka Studios, produced many short and long form films, as well as produced feature films that became huge successes world wide. Films of note would be The Emperor's Nightingale (1949), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1959), and The Hand (1965).
Television had a huge influence on stop motion productions, since TV shows needed to be produced fast and within a very tight budget. In 1955 The Gumby Show, produced and animated by Art Clokey, would go on to be a huge success. With its little green clay-animated main character Gumby, the show would go on for many years and be the doorway to many careers in stop motion animation for artists in the industry. Art Clokey would go on to make a 2nd television series called Davey and Goliath for the Lutheran Church. This Sunday Morning cartoon would also be a huge influence on many generations of kids wanting to push puppets, and perhaps even someday be animators.
The Gumby Show
King Kong (1933)
The 1933 King Kong is a classic of stop-motion, regarded by many as a pioneering achievement of the art form. The Kong stop-motion armatures were animated under the supervision of the legendary Willis O'Brien. Four scale-sized stop motion models were built for animating: three out of aluminum, foam rubber, latex and rabbit fur, and another simpler lead-and-fur model for the famous scene of Kong falling down the Empire State Building. Miniatures made the other creatures come to life as well, including the T. Rex. O'Brien and his team famously worked on the Kong/T. Rex fight for seven weeks, and it has been a source of inspiration for both stop-motion and computer animators ever since.
Stop-motion animation is the only art form in the world that can take advantage of (as well as use) every other art form or technology known to humanity. The reality is that stop-motion is a technique which utilizes photographic methods as its capturing medium, and then plays back those sequences of photographs to produce a continuous motion on the screen. In the most simplest terms, stop-motion is a photographic film making technique where an object is moved in front of a camera and photographed many times.
The theory of the animated cartoon preceded the invention of the cinema by nearly half a century. Early experimenters, working to create conversation pieces for Victorian parlours, or new sensations for the touring magic-lantern shows (which were a popular form of entertainment), discovered the principle of persistence of vision. If drawings of the stages of an action were shown in fast succession, the human eye would perceive them as continuous movement. One of the first commercially successful devices, invented by a Belgian man named Joseph Plateau in 1832, was the phenakistoscope, a spinning cardboard disk that created the illusion of movement when viewed in a mirror. In 1834 William George Horner invented the zoetrope, a rotating drum lined by a band of pictures that could be changed out. In 1876 the Frenchman Charles-Émile Reynaud adapted the principle into a form that could be projected before a theatrical audience. Reynaud became not only animation's first entrepreneur but, with his gorgeously hand-painted ribbons of celluloid conveyed by a system of mirrors to a theatre screen, he was also the first artist to give personality and warmth to his animated characters.
The use of taking many pictures of a moving object is in essence one of the oldest film-making techniques. Eadweard Muybridge was the first to discover that by lining up a series of cameras and having one take a picture right after the other one in succession, the result would demonstrate the motion, path, and trajectory of the object's movement. This was the very first moving picture technique. Despite of this discovery, it was quite a while before anyone could see the motion in real-time, and were subject to just reviewing the still images one by one.
The history of stop motion animation is a very rich one, one of which we hope to cover a little here. Beginning in 1888, Louis Le Prince patented the design for the very first motion picture camera. This of course was a very crude camera, but it demonstrated the basic principle of the motion picture. In 1889, William Friese-Greene patented a motion picture camera called a Chronophotographic camera, where it would take 10 images a second using perforated celluloid film. Later in 1891, an employee of Thomas Edison named William Kennedy Laurie Dickson would design and build the Kinetographic camera, which had an electric motor and proved more reliable then its predecessors. Jumping forward to 1894, we find the Lumiere Domitor which was created by Charles Moisson for the the Lumiere Brothers. At this point in history, film making was very much considered exciting technology, and for those unaware of the new tech it was considered magic.
With the invention of sprocket-driven film stock, animation was poised for a great leap forward. Although "firsts" of any kind are never easy to establish, the first film-based animator appears to be J. Stuart Blackton, whose Humorous Phases of Funny Faces in 1906 launched a successful series of animated films for New York's pioneering Vitagraph Company. Later that year, Blackton also experimented with the stop-motion technique—in which objects are photographed, then re-positioned and photographed again—for his short film The Haunted Hotel.
Originally, Dennis Muren and his special effects team on the set of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back were unsure of how they would bring the AT-AT walkers to life. The first idea was to build an actual robot that could move by itself, but that was deemed too complicated and costly. Instead, Muren pushed for stop-motion, realizing that the staccato look of stop-motion would be appropriate for machines. Stop-motion models were built and manipulated a frame at a time, in front of paintings (as opposed to a blue screen) while baking soda was used for the snowy landscape. It was shot at 24 frames per second, resulting in about 5 seconds of footage per day of work. Explosions were simulated using high speed photography, while photo cutouts were used for walkers in the background, and smaller models were also created and placed in order to convey a sense of scale and depth in the shots. The set itself had trap doors so that animators could pop up, animate the model, go back down, and shoot a frame of film.
The visual effects company Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), created by George Lucas, had developed a new technique called go-motion to animate portions of The Empire Strikes Back. Go-motion is similar to stop-motion, but it differs in that it incorporates motion blur by shooting each frame while the model is moving. Animators used go motion on the alien steeds called "tauntauns" and some of the AT-AT Walker shots.
Technically speaking, Jurassic Park is a stop-motion animated CGI rendered film. In it, metal armature puppets were connected to a computer through wires to control the onscreen character generated inside the computer. It was a very expensive technique, but the look it created appeared to be much smoother then the repetitive stutter of stop-motion. Producers all over started to abandon anything handmade, from hand puppets and stop-motion animation, to environments and matte paintings (which had been a staple for film-making since the early days), and instead opted for the CGI technique.